Rural veterinary services
Some rural and regional areas in Australia find it difficult to secure adequate veterinary services for the animals in their communities. This can mean that those veterinarians who are in the area work longer hours, travel long distances and do more overtime. In some cases, there is not enough demand to support a sustainable veterinary business.
This can be the case for other professions as well - many rural and regional areas find it difficult to attract and retain medical, dental and other professionals in their communities.
The Frawley Report of 2003 was specifically concerned with the demand for rural veterinary services in Australia. Its recommendations included providing proper funding of the four existing veterinary schools, and recommending against the establishment of any new veterinary schools in Australia. This was because the problem of ‘vets in the bush’ is a demand problem and not a supply problem. In other words, sufficient numbers of veterinarians were being produced but producers were under-utilising their services.
How many vets are enough?
One strategy to try to solve the problem has been to increase the number of graduates by opening new veterinary schools and changing the entry criteria to promote the profession to school leavers from a rural background. Australia now has seven veterinary schools and will be graduating about 1000 veterinarians per year from 2012.
The number of veterinarians per million people in Australia (360) is now more than 30 per cent higher than in either the USA or the UK (270 each). By contrast California has about 35 million plus people and currently has two veterinary schools producing about 200 veterinarians per year.
It can be strongly argued that Australia is already producing more than enough veterinary graduates and that the perceived or actual shortage of veterinarians in rural practice relates to issues of remuneration and lifestyle. It is an expensive degree with low rates of pay.
Movement away from rural practice is a worldwide problem that is mainly driven by the lack of capacity of primary producers to pay the same for veterinary services as city people with companion animals. Many veterinarians choose metropolitan practice to secure adequate remuneration to pay off the debt they carry at the completion of the veterinary degree course.
Retention not supply
A recent Graduate Destinations Survey, independent of any of the universities, found that 75 per cent of University of Melbourne veterinary graduates entered practice in rural areas in 2007. The challenge is to retain them in the rural areas. Rural practice can be difficult even for experienced practitioners, and can be extremely demanding for new veterinarians.
Strong rural veterinary workforce
The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) strongly supports the need for a viable rural veterinary workforce that meets the needs of Australia’s primary producers. This means helping to create sustainable veterinary businesses in all areas of the country.
It is also vital to maintain the highest levels of food safety and food security for the Australian population and is critical to satisfy our overseas trading partners of a safe, high quality disease-free product.
The AVA advocates the strengthening of the Australian Practitioner Surveillance Network and the Australian Veterinary Reserve with special emphasis on funding the promotion of high biosecurity practices to farmers through rural veterinarians. Any heightened awareness will help to protect against an emergency animal disease outbreak, supporting its rapid recognition, containment and eradication.
This would have the dual benefit of improved biosecurity surveillance capability, as well as providing business opportunities for skilled veterinarians in rural communities.
The AVA is currently undertaking extensive research to help understand Australia's future needs for veterinary services and the current status of the veterinary workforce.